image of book How Learning Works with sicky note attached

Show Me the Learning

In an attempt to illuminate the “black box” it seems every few years, someone takes a crack at explaining exactly how learning works. Advances in brain science have helped illuminate some of the mechanics involved and generations of psycho-educational research and evidence based theory have helped us understand how to create effective learning environments. But inspiring learning in our students is something more personal. Earlier this year in his blog post “Why Good Classes Fail“, Prof. Michael Wesch proposes that empathy is at the core of any encounter with students that has the potential to inspire.

Recently, I organized a panel of students to speak with a room full of new Faculty during an orientation to teaching session at UBC. I asked them to come prepared with 2 things:

  • a story about a faculty member who had an impact on their learning
  • a piece of advice about teaching

Here are a few snippets (as close to the original sentiment as my notes and recollection will allow):

Impact on learning:

my prof. gave me the confidence that “I can learn this” – when I was struggling. He did this during office hours by helping me use what I already know to solve more complex problems.

as an international student, there were many ways of doing things (such as receiving critique on artwork) that were new to me. My prof. took the time to explain this is why we approach critique in this way – explaining why (instead of assuming we all knew) gave me a new perspective.

posing real problems and giving me time to solve them through experimentation was important to me. Sometimes I just can’t relate to the theory – it doesn’t make sense – then the practical application makes it all come together.

my prof. surprised me by speaking Chinese (he was clearly not Asian) and telling stories from history using different voices – kind of acting in a way and sharing his passion for the stories he was telling. He was entertaining and really engaging.

we had the chance to learn (in groups) about each other and where we were from and how our experience of place had an impact on our learning. My prof. seemed to get that this was important.


  • be yourself
  • see more in us than we see in ourselves
  • surprise us
  • give us time/take time
  • give us real problems to solve
  • make time for experimentation
  • take a risk
  • consider impact of place and “where we come from” on learning
  • encourage us to learn from each other
  • consider how hard it is to learn in a language that is still new- post your notes for us to review unfamiliar terms

We had just spent the morning with faculty, working through case studies to highlight principles of learning described in Ambrose et al’s How Learning Works and the students made these principles come to life – unintentionally touching on each one through their stories. Perhaps the faculty members that the students described had well thought out strategies, objectives and plans for how they were going to teach their classes. But what the students’ shared highlighted something more basic – the qualities that inspire learning: simple caring, attention, interest, openness, empathy, encouragement and passion for discovery. Interesting that most of the stories of “impact” that the students shared had, at their core, authentic human encounter as the common denominator.


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